I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve tried to explain … to the bus-exiting kids that oil has been around almost forever and that our claim to fame is drilling to get it.”
Not that she minds repeating the tale, for Barbara Zolli, director of the Drake Well Museum in Pennsylvania, says, “It’s our story and we take pride in sharing it.”
As old as the oil industry itself, it’s a story that’s 150 years in the making, which is why it deserved a birthday present of sorts.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania recently granted more than $6 million for much-needed renovations and expansions at the museum for the rapidly approaching “Oil 150 Celebration” in 2009.
But it’s more than the money; it’s the history.
Almost a century and a half after the fact, it may no longer matter to most where the modern oil industry actually began – with the exception of people in Spindletop, Texas, and Signal Hill, Calif., of course – but to the people of Titusville, Pa., a small town of approximately 6,000, where the Drake Well Museum is located, the “where” is a very big deal.
This is where in 1859 Edwin L. Drake struck oil at a depth of 69-1/2 feet in this northwestern Pennsylvania town. The well produced 10 to 20 barrels a day when oil was selling for unheard price of $20 a barrel – it was more oil than had ever been collected at one time before.
How big was this?
Life magazine’s “Millennium Edition” ranked Drake’s achievement as number 47 of the most significant 100 events of the past 1,000 years, claiming that his well had “doubled the world’s oil supply in one day.”
Bigger and Bigger
Titusville, naturally, seemed like a good place for the museum – especially since local residents marked the famous well so it would’t be lost.
Then, at the turn of the 20th century, a collection of early oil industry memorabilia was collected and housed; then photographs, providing detailed documentation of the region and the industry from 1860 to 1915, were added (today, there are more than 11,000 images).
In the 1930s, in anticipation of the 75th anniversary of the strike, local oil producers raised funds and built the first museum building and research library located on the site of Drake’s successful well.
And Pennsylvanians took to the place. By 1945, total attendance for all state parks was 10,270 – and 3,676 of those came to the Drake Well Museum. Also that year, the Pennsylvania general assembly appropriated $185,000 toward adding a wing and constructing a board-for-board replica of Drake’s engine house and derrick.
In 1959, the museum building was enlarged to include a research library for the Centennial of Oil.
In 1963, the limestone museum and library were finished.
In 1966, with the addition of 80 professional exhibits, Drake’s original well and an acre of land around it were listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a National Historic Landmark.
By 1979, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers designated Drake’s well as a National Historic Engineering Landmark, citing the revolutionary technological changes that occurred on the site and creating a bronze plaque stating, “Few events in history have so transformed the face of civilization.”
For the past 20 years, the focus at Drake was on improving collections management by computerizing records, hiring professional staff and upgrading collections storage and environmental monitoring.
That’s why museum officials smiled especially wide when Pennsylvania, with the Drake discovery sesquicentennial approaching, released a $6.64 million capital project to upgrade the facility’s 41-year-old building infrastructure and systems, to completely re-design the permanent exhibits, and to create a comprehensive research and collections storage area.
Zolli says the project will enhance the Drake Well Museum’s ability to preserve and interpret oil industry history.
“It will accomplish three things,” she said:
- The upgrade of building systems and infrastructure (including fire suppression).
- The design and installation of a new, larger permanent exhibit.
- The creation of a comprehensive state-of-the-art collections storage system and Research Library.
An additional $1 million in funds was raised to provide interior and exterior orientation to the region, including the construction of a new 50-seat Orientation Theater.
Yes, It Matters
The question, for those outside the industry, is why does a place like Drake still matter?
Zolli thinks the answer is obvious.
“As the birthplace of the modern oil industry, the Drake Well Museum continues to attract local, national and international attention,” she said. “Recently we hosted Japanese, German and Australian documentary film crews; the Wall Street Journal, CBS Evening News, PBS Lehrer News Hour and Bloomberg News; and provided historic images and contemporary oil producers for stories and videos about independent oil, pipeline history and petroleum geology.”
Moreover, Zolli says the growth of public interest in hydrocarbon-based energy positions the museum as a unique place to help visitors understand current issues within the historical context of regulation, production and technological growth.
“Drake Well Museum can demonstrate environmental impact, explain economic cycles and help visitors compare the merits of alternative resources,” she said.
Drake does that by using what Zolli refers to as “the real stuff” of powerful objects, images, tours, documents and the experiences and expertise of workers throughout the industry who helped shape the profession – and does it by connecting audiences to their pasts, entertaining them and encouraging their exploration and curiosity in a social setting.
“Drake tries to help people understand the past and its impact on the present as a way to make informed decisions for the future.”
For Zolli, though, there’s something else – something more obvious to all those students getting off all those buses, something she tells each of them.
“There’s a drop of oil in your life every day!”